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3 Key Traits of a Positive Patient-Provider Relationship

Empathy, strong communication, and shared decision-making are essential for a positive patient-provider relationship.

As healthcare continues to take a consumer-centric turn, patient needs have evolved. Patients are not simply looking to visit their doctors to cure a disease, and now also want a positive patient-provider relationship that yields a positive patient experience.

Patient-provider relationships have recently emerged as cornerstones of quality healthcare. A 2017 survey from the Council of Accountable Physician Practices (CAPP) found that consumers believe patient-provider relationships are the single most important factor in quality care.

Finding a provider who meets individual patient needs is part of building a quality provider relationship. Patients are generally looking for a provider who is knowledgeable, listens to patient concerns, explains medical concepts clearly and in lay terms, and spends as much time as necessary during care encounters.

For their part, healthcare organizations have been trying to meet patient needs and facilitate a positive patient experience. A separate 2017 survey from Change Healthcare found that 80 percent of payers and 72 percent of providers give the consumer experience top priority.

However, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to create a positive patient-provider relationship. Between competing regulatory demands and patient desires for strong interpersonal relationships, providers can find it difficult to recognize a positive patient-provider relationship.

Although each relationship can be different depending on patient needs and provider caregiving style, there are some general characteristics that often constitute a good relationship. Below, outlines the key traits of a positive patient-provider relationship.

Express clinician empathy

Building a positive patient-provider relationship should start and end with the golden rule: treat others how you want to be treated. When clinicians have empathy, they can connect with their patients on an important level that makes the patient feel understood and cared for.

Research has suggested that this increases patient satisfaction, despite the care outcomes. A 2016 study from Massachusetts General Hospital found that hand surgery patients treated by a doctor who patients deemed as empathic perceived their care as high quality.

A general assessment of care quality and patient satisfaction surveys showed that 65 percent of patient satisfaction can be attributed to clinician empathy. This finding is critical as providers work to crack the code of a good patient satisfaction score.

Some industry experts have contended that clinicians lose too much of their propensity for empathy during the medical education experience. However, research from the journal Medical Education has suggested that may not be entirely the case.

Clinicians may lose aspects of their cognitive empathy over time. Cognitive empathy is the ability for a clinician to recognize a patient’s situation, internalize the patient’s feelings, and act accordingly.

Clinicians do not always lose their affective empathy, though, meaning many physicians still have an internal and visceral reaction to patient suffering.

The researchers contended that both types of empathy are critical for successful patient-provider relationships and that as a result, medical educators need to monitor students’ empathy levels.

“We found that changes in empathy during medical training are not necessarily negative—the narrative appears to be much more complicated than we initially thought and illustrates how problematic it is to rely on a single, subjective measure to evaluate a complex psychological construct,” the authors concluded.

Practice strong communication skills

Strong overarching communication skills are also essential to a positive patient-provider relationship. Providers who clearly communicate medical instructions, patient education, and other important clinical information will tend to have better relationships than those with poor communication skills.

While providers should always aim to use a friendly and respectful tone when speaking with patients, other strategies will also be essential to having a quality conversation.

Patient teach back will ensure patients understand the information they are communicating, for example. Providers should ask patients to repeat the discussed health information to help patients synthesize the information and display their level of understanding.

Providers should also be cognizant of any clinician biases they harbor. Some providers have biases toward overweight or obese patients, delivering care instructions more strictly or harshly than they had potentially intended. These biases can not only harm the patient-provider relationship, but also hinder outcomes. Poor communications can keep patients and providers from truly determining the cause of a health issue.

Additionally, health institutions should work to overcome language barriers that keep patients and providers from having meaningful conversations. Eight percent of Medicare beneficiaries have limited English language proficiency, presenting a major barrier to communication.

Fortunately, an increasing number of providers speak a language other than English, according to a recent survey from Doximity. Thirty-six percent of providers speak Spanish, 14 percent speak Hindi, and 9 percent speak French.

Additionally, more healthcare organizations are tapping technology to overcome these language barriers. Digital interpreters are helping to close the gaps in communication, and make it easier for organizations to meet patient needs when there are not enough in-person interpreters.

Although the human touch is always preferable for interpreters, digital tools are key for keeping up with growing demand.

Drive shared decision-making

Ultimately, a positive patient-provider relationship will result in team-based care centered on the patient. Shared decision-making is a core aspect of this evolving care team.

Shared decision-making is the practice of incorporating the patient voice into healthcare decisions. Providers must practice the other hallmarks of meaningful communication to ensure successful shared decision-making. Patient education is crucial for ensuring patients have the materials necessary to make a decision.

Incorporating patients into healthcare decision-making will hinge on three main points: patient education, understanding patient cultural and personal preferences, and engaging family caregivers. This will set up all key stakeholders with the resources needed to contribute to a treatment choice.

Shared decision-making can result in better patient satisfaction and experience scores, experts have said. Patients who helped select a treatment is far more likely to have a positive experience with treatment. Additionally, those patients are more likely to have a positive relationship with their providers.

The practice might also yield positive care outcomes, research has suggested. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that shared decision-making tools yielded lower emergency department readmission rates, a key quality indicator that impacts hospital reimbursement.

Each of these principles are interrelated. Without strong communication, it is difficult to facilitate shared decision-making and express empathy. Thus, it is crucial that providers work to integrate each of these key characteristics into their practice as providers seek to build stronger patient-provider relationships.

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